Esther: Hello, and welcome to Know Direction, your number one source for Pathfinder news, reviews, and interviews. I’m Esther, and while I’m usually joined by my co-host Navaar, tonight I’m hosting solo.
I’m so excited to be interviewing Mike Sayre, the Design Manager at Paizo, about a book that Navaar and I recently discussed and we both loved: Treasure Vault.
Mike, welcome back to the show. Have you been on the show before?
Michael: It has been quite a while, possibly a couple years, but I’ve definitely been on before at some point.
Esther: Fantastic. Welcome back to the show. So good to have you here. One of the things that we kind of like to start with is just asking about like, your history with Paizo and Pathfinder and how you got to be in the role you are now and like, your history with the product.
Michael: I actually started writing for Pathfinder first edition, gosh, I guess it’s been 10 years ago… about, now? In the third party market, I wrote a book called Akashic Mysteries for Dreamscarred Press. And around the same time I wrote a supplement for Owen Stevens at Rogue Genius Games, called The Genius Guide to Bravery Feats. And those did pretty well and kind of took off and, uh, I had a fair bit of success in the third-party sphere, enough so that I decided I didn’t want to continue working in banking, and focused on this instead.
I got hired at Paizo a little over five years ago as an Organized Play Developer, and I worked in Organized Play for about two years, before moving over and joining the design team, uh, as a Designer and then a Senior Designer, and now as the Design Manager for that team there. I’ve worked on honestly too many products to list, but Treasure Vault is one of the most recent ones to come out there. And yeah, that’s it. So, right now I’m still working at Paizo, still working on the Rules and Lore team, where we make the Lost Omens books and then also the design hardcover books. That’s all kind of within the purview of my team.
Esther: Amazing. One of the things that I’m curious about that I think some of our listeners, especially people who are like, wondering about career trajectories in the field may wonder is: what is the work of a Design Manager look like day-to-day? I don’t know if there’s a typical day in the life of a Design Manager, but yeah, what’s it like?
Michael: So to a certain extent, I don’t know that since I’ve had the title, we’ve seen much of what a typical day might actually look like. You know, we recently announced the Remasters, and those are something we’ve been working on basically since the beginning of the year. But a lot of it is helping figure out what our schedules and product strategies for the department look like, making sure that I get the hours and the resources that my team needs to get those books that we put onto the schedule made. So my boss is Jason Buhlman, the Director of Game Design. My peer is Logan Bonner, our lead designer for Pathfinder Second Edition. And then my team includes the Developer Landon Winkler, and then Senior developers Jason Keeley and Eleanor Ferron, Senior Designer James Case, and — I’ve definitely just forgotten somebody’s name. I’m so sorry. It’s been a very long week. James; I mentioned Logan; maybe I didn’t forget anybody. Maybe I, maybe I did it all. But now that I’ve had a complete, uh, mind blank moment there, my job is to make sure that all of those people get the time and resources they need to make all of these great books.
And then I also helped make those books myself as well. So I was the lead on Treasure Vault: planning that book, creating the outline for it, hiring the freelancers who are going to help me write it. And all of that is part of my job as well.
Creative Director, Luis Loza — did I say Luis Loza? There we go! [laughs]
Esther: You did not say Luis. Yes!
Michael: But, you know, planning these books, getting them outlined, getting them through the approval process and then making them, it’s kind of like the, the part of my job that I really enjoy the most. And that’s the same thing that James and Luis and Eleanor do as well, is they plan the books, they plot the books, they hire the people to help write the books, and then they make sure they, uh, get through the finish line.
So as the Design Manager, I wish I could do more of that, honestly. It’s kind of my favorite thing to do, and, and, and really being a part of being a Design Manager is just making sure that I can kind of tank all of the various problems and stuff that can get in the way for the team so that the largest number of us can spend the most amount of time doing that thing that is really kind of the, the core of making a game like Pathfinder Second Edition.
Esther: I feel like that really speaks to being a thoughtful manager. One of my spouse’s bosses once said a good manager is a umbrella for all the crap that could come down upon the team and a compliment funnel. And like, definitely does the work of tanking and getting out in front of issues that could affect the team, and really, really helps the team do their best work. So I think that’s awesome.
And I feel like it can go along with ascending in a field to where you, you get a little bit further from the work you really love to do, but you also get to enable more people to do it. And it’s kind of an interesting trade-off in that way.
Michael: It is, yeah. And you know, sometimes it is advantageous personally, because, you know, while I am championing the things that, that my team wants — it’s, it’s been really great. You know, Luis and I have worked together to plan some amazing products that haven’t even been announced yet. Some of them I think we’re gonna start talking about at PaizoCon, some of them will start talking about at GenCon. But that really is kind of the coolest thing, is while I am representing my team, I, I have this very kind of unique privilege to get to see how we can put all of the pieces together to work with the other teams at the company, like the Narrative team who makes the Adventure Paths.
And it often leads to us making kind of even cooler things than we would get to make if we didn’t have people in those coordinating positions pulling things together and, and taking that kind of bird’s-eye view to be like, “Oh, you know, the Narrative team really wants to do this AP with this really cool idea, and Eleanor’s really been pushing to do this kind of book. And if I can just shift a few things around, then we can have these two things click together and then they both get to happen.” You know, so, so stuff like that is really exciting.
I’m really looking forward to getting to talk about the stuff we’ve been working on, you know, at PaizoCon here and then at GenCon. I think people are just gonna be so blown away.
I always tell people, Pathfinder Second Edition has grown so fast because we just have this really incredible framework that has been built very modular. There’s kind of this idea that I still run into, you know, on forums and in the wilds where people are like, “Oh, maybe I’ll try Pathfinders Second Edition someday when it catches up to Pathfinder First Edition.” And I’m like, “I gotta tell you guys, we’re there already.”
Because, you know, a single Pathfinder Second Edition Archetype opens up a number of mechanical ideas, kind of similar to like, 38 Pathfinder First Edition Archetypes. And so we’ve really gotten to just blaze some amazing trails into this edition.
We’re already opening up classes — things like the Inventor that never existed in the previous edition. And I just have this amazing team. Eleanor and Luis have really brought the entire world of Golarion, the primary campaign setting for Pathfinder Second Edition, into this modern era with incredible stories and new opportunities.
It’s funny how often the people who report to me — some of my most exciting interactions with them are actually when I’m working for them as a freelancer. Getting to do Monsters of Myth with Eleanor was so cool. I got to write the very first monster that appears in that book. And, I, I really kind of had this idea strike me — uh, it’s this monster Ainamuuren, the last of the saumen kar — and I just started writing and you know, it was supposed to be like, “Yeah, give us a page of lore and things.” And I just really kind of got swept up in writing this thing, and I sent it to Eleanor. And Eleanor goes, “Okay, so Mike, this is good, but did you just commit genocide on an entire species?”
And I was like, “No. I said there’s at least one left, you know?”
[Mike and Esther laugh]
Esther: Very important stipulation there: at least one. There’s so much that I would — I’m like trying to figure out what I wanna follow up on. I think for me, being a fan of the system and having played Pathfinder, 1, one of the most remarkable things to me is just the pace of output for 2E that your teams consistently produce, and the quality of output, which is so good.
Like Navaar and I, every time we review something we’re just like, “Oh, it’s so good. There’s so much here.” And to me, I really feel the freshness and the creativity of all the ideas that it seems like are getting tossed around in the creative process, in the process of collaboration. And it really shows. Like the, the product is just such a delight to watch evolve and I’m so excited for where it’s gonna go from here. Every announcement I get excited about. Like there’s nothing thus far that I’ve been like, “Really, we’re going there?”Llike, everything is good.
Michael: Well, and I think that comes from, you know, people working on the game who are passionate about the game and who play the game. Both within Paizo and in our freelancer pool, we always, you know, we’re so privileged to get to work with the most amazing freelancers who bring their own really great ideas into the game and who we get to form relationships and friendships and things like that as we all kind of tell these stories together. We’re backed by this incredible editing team who really helps take our ideas and keep them corralled and clarify them and, and turn them into something that is going to speak to and be understood by the widest audience possible.
You know, our art team is just incredible. Sonja Morris has really helped us continue to push books forward. I think Treasure Vault is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever gotten to work on, and I cannot claim very much credit for that at all. So many of the good ideas, and there are things that, you know, Sonja executed. And I, I sure did write a lot of art orders for her, but she was the one who really helped figure out how to put them on display in the best possible way and really elevate that book. We have a concept artist, Kent, who I keep telling people that the thing that bums me out is I never get to work with Kent because I keep doing books that don’t need concept art. And I’m like, sooner or later I’m gonna come up with something really wild just so I get the chance to work with Kent.
We announced Howl of the Wild, and I think we, I’m gonna knock on wood here and hopefully I’m remembering correctly, that we did in fact show a really cool piece of airship art because otherwise James Case is gonna be mad that I spoiled that.
But, um, you know, it’s just, it’s just so great to work with a team. And especially in our Rules and Lore team, everybody really challenges each other to be their best. You know, uh, I know there have been times where I had an idea and Eleanor’s been like, “Mike, how long did you think about that?” And I’m like, “I’ll think about it longer. It’s a good idea, but I know I can raise it.” And she’s like, “Yeah, I think you can.” Or Luis and I will be talking about some idea, and then at the same time we’ll realize we’re headed in the same direction and it’s definitely gonna be a thing that happens!
You know, James Case and I, kind of became best friends at our first PaizoCon, where we were roommates together. And he and I, I think, have constantly challenged each other. And as a result, I think everything that each of us has worked on has gotten better and better and better.
And sometimes it’s kind of friendly, one-upsmanship, and sometimes it’s just being in a group of people who you trust enough that it is– sometimes it’s very hard to get the kind of critical feedback you need in a creative environment because people can be worried about hurting your feelings. And so I think when you have a really strong team and there is a high level of trust, you’re able to push a little harder and demand more of each other because that trust allows you to say some things that while maybe not nice, are true, and are sometimes really essential to hear, you know?
Esther: Hmm. Yeah, I, I love that. I think trust is such an essential element of really generative collaborations. I totally agree. Sometimes it can be a lot to put yourself out there creatively, artistically, and I think we can be afraid to give each other truthful feedback, honest feedback that’s like, “You know what? I’m really not feeling this”. Or ” I think you got something here, but it can be honed and sharpened.” And when you have the trust that lets you be really honest with people and lets you assume that they have your best interests and the best interests of the product and the game and the community at heart, that’s a beautiful thing.
For me, it really shows in the finished product. I know that, for me as a fan of Pathfinder 1, there were occasionally some bumps in the road with some of the material where, you know, I think we’ve come so far as a TTRPG space in terms of the way we think about like, what’s really pushing us forward in ways that are gonna represent everybody well, in ways that are gonna help everybody who’s at the margins feel included.
And for me, Pathfinder Second Edition has done such a wonderful job of that. Like, I just think of all the, the ways nonbinary people and trans people have brought into the materials. The new Tian Xia books, which I’m so excited for, I think that creative process and the trust there really shows, so just well done. Well done.
Michael: Thank you. And, and you know, I, I can, I can only take such a small slice of, of that credit because it really comes to the fact — having good trans and nonbinary representation comes in part from the fact that, you know, I have trans and nonbinary coworkers and former coworkers who have all added their voice and their wisdom, not just to the game, but to the people making the game.
You know, and I think when you listen to people and you strive to create a space where they feel welcome, it, it just kind of elevates everything. I can remember all the way back to the start of the edition conversations we had about things like, we don’t want to talk about any of the ancestries or characters in this game from an outsider’s perspective. You know, none of this British-colonial-going-into-Africa. When we talk about Mwangi Expanse, you know, none of this. We wanted to make sure that Goblin Feats had names that sounded like Goblins came up with those names, and we wanted to talk about the way they interacted with the world, kind of more from their perspective of how they see themselves being part of the world.
And, uh, I think that empathy is, I think such a very interesting and integral component of Pathfinder Second Edition because I think pretty much all of us, that’s this tack we kind of take when we’re writing characters, or creatures or stories, is just to try and imagine ourselves in the shoes of the people in those stories.
And, you know, Treasure Vault– that was I think one of the reasons that I had such a fun time, writing the voices for both Valashinaz and Purepurin was, you know, I, I, I, I just kind of climbed inside of them while I was writing the book.
The initial pitch I, I gave for their voices was, I was like,”It, it’s kind of like Devil Wears Prada, right?”
Esther: Oh my god, yes!
Michael: And you know, and then that was the starting point and, uh, that I used to kind of get rolling. And then from there, I just kept asking myself questions about who these characters were. How old is Purepurin? How long has she been the steward of these vaults? And you know, my answers were, “Well, she’s probably pretty young and not very long, so there’s still a lot of she’s very earnest, but also a little hapless.”
And then Valashinaz was very much the opposite, where she’s very, very old. She’s kind of seen everything there is to see, and that gives her this kind of combination of arrogance, but very much tempered by, you know, an ages-old wisdom. And, um, I don’t know, hopefully, hopefully that came through at least a little bit in, in what I wrote for them, because certainly there were times where I would put little bits of story into an item. There’s like, a set of hand wraps in there, and it, it, it just briefly mentions that the first set of these belong to a Tian elf and then there’s a, a quote from Valashinaz in that same chapter where she talks about adventuring with an Elven monk.
And you know, in my head I’d written out that whole story, where these two were legends in Tian Xia when Valashinaz was much younger, but she’s so old that, you know, even this Elven companion who, you know, their adventures probably spanned generations of humans, is now no longer a part of her life. And she’s not even sure if he is alive or if he’s long since kind of left the mortal plane behind. And, and I reall, know part of that is my writing style. I, I like to climb inside the heads of the characters that I write about. And, and part of that is lessons that I’ve just learned by being surrounded by so many other creative people and learning how they think and how they access the world, and just trying to continually use that build a better world for everybody to play in, you know?
Esther: I’m so glad you brought up those two and their voices because that was on my list of things to ask you about. Navaar and I independently read the book and independently wrote in the things we wanted to cover in our breakdown episode, their voices and the sense of immersion that we both got from reading the words at the beginning of every section, the little sidebars from == I definitely butchered her name in the previous episode. Pure-eh-purr-in, is that it?
Esther: Purepurin, okay. The little sidebars from Purepurin. I, I love that you were thinking Devil Wears Prada because it hadn’t occurred to me, but now I totally see it and it does have that vibe. I just, the moment I started reading this dragon’s voice it, it felt like this ancient being who had seen so much, collected so much and had a lot of perspective on that. And I think you nailed her being a little arrogant, but at — at one point, I think I remember she says something like, “One day a group of humans may come to the vaults and like, overcome me. But until that day…” And I loved that bit of, she’s seen a lot, she knows how things can go down and she’s very comfortable in the place she is right now. But there is that little bit of anticipation that someday — maybe someday someone will best me. And Purepurin… was just such a delight to read her voice. I really felt like I was walking along with this little kobold who was so excited and plucky and a little bit clumsy. It was just a delight to read.
So I love that. I love the, the deep dive into their history that even if we, the readers of the book don’t get all that information, it definitely comes through in the finished product.
Michael: Well, good. I’m glad.
Esther: So much fun. So I, I did wanna back up a little bit and go back to something you talked about when we were talking about the nuts and bolts of your role, in that you get to sort of conceive of a project and then bring it through to fruition.
I was curious about the history of this project, like, why Treasure Vaults? What was the genesis for the idea of this book?
Michael: So one of the things was that, you know, we have added so much character content so fast to Pathfinder Second Edition. We knew that kind of one of the missing pieces was the character options and you know, like ancestry and ancestry feats and class feats and things like that. They were kind of outpacing items, which doesn’t often happen in tabletop RPGs, and so we knew we needed to check that box.
It’s also, there is always just this kind of reality that, you know, a big item book will always sell. Well, it’s something you want to do during an edition cycle because people will appreciate it, people will buy it. But I did not want to do a dry Ultimate Equipment book that was just, you know, a giant reference document of items. That’s not to take, you know, a knock on Pathfinder First Edition’s Ultimate Equipment, which was a fabulous book and just absolutely jam-packed with stuff.
But one of our goals with Pathfinder Second Edition is to try and make these books really just fun to read, to kind of encourage you to sit down and read it for pleasure, not just to find, an option for your character. And so Treasure Vault, to me, was a little bit of a challenge in that regard because conceptually this book could have been very dry and probably would’ve sold about as well, right?
Because again, big books full of items! People like that stuff. They want that. I really felt like we could do that. We could give people all of these items and things they’re looking for, but we could also give them a really great story to accompany it and really elevate it and turn it into something special.
That was kind of the initial road that my mind started spinning down as we talked about this. And I threw out this idea. I said, “Well, what if it’s, what if it is just a dragon’s vault? You know, we’ll, we’ll call it the, the Vaults or, or a dragon’s vault or, or something like that. And then the dragon will be the voice that takes us through”. And everybody was like, “Okay, that’s, that’s getting there. That’s interesting.” And, and I could have stopped there ’cause everybody was kind of on board. But then I immediately kind of second guessed myself and I was like, “But you know what? Dragon’s not relatable.” You know, when you look at like organized play, the most common character played by the largest number of people is a human Fighter. And a big part of that is because we can all imagine what it’s like to be human, because by and large we are, you know, and then a Fighter is a pretty accessible concept. Y’know, I think everybody at some point in their life has a fight or learns to kind of analogize their struggles in the, in the terms of combat, you know, so that got me thinking, “Well, what is the accessible inroad here?”
And that was where we kind latched onto the kobold, right? Because kobolds are kind of weirdly cute in their snake kind of way. And people really dig them and they have these — they’ve got that plucky underdog energy. You know, there’s kobold feats like Cringe where you’re literally leaning into the fact that you are a little bit smaller and weaker than everybody that you meet.
We latched onto that. And honestly, I, you know, I’d love to say there was this like, big process where we came to the, the Devil Wears Prada idea and stuff like, but it was literally almost as soon as we realized it was a dragon and a kobold. James Case and I were talking and I was like, “James, James, James, James, James! What if it’s the Devil Wears Prada and the kobold is, you know, the adorable little assistant who’s just kind of breaking into this, you know, entire world? She doesn’t understand. And then the dragon is the jaded, experienced leader of this entire enterprise?” And James was like, “Oh, that’s good.” And I was like, “Right?! And, and, you know…” And, and then it was just kind of off from there.
Esther: Okay, so I have a question. If Valashinaz is Miranda Priestley and Purepurin is Andy, does that make Ziik the ratcatcher Emily?
Michael: [gasps] I mean, kind of!
Esther: I love it.
Michael: I think honestly, I think Ziik has the cane — like Ziik has the, the leg injury, right? So there even is like, that actual kind of direct connection there. You know, Ziik was not actually like, the former steward, which I think would’ve been the literal through-line there. But also you’ve, you’ve gotta make things your own, you know, you’ve gotta just, you can’t get too just writing somebody else’s coattails on the thing. But yeah, no, I, I, I would say yes. That’s a very fair catch.
Esther: Amazing. Amazing. Well, I, I loved what you were saying about making the books fun to read and also accessible. One of the big questions for me as somebody who runs an actual play is, how do I make each episode accessible for somebody who has never listened to our show before? What is the on-ramp, what is the inroad and Purepurin as the, the inroad makes so much sense.
I just, I love that. I also think as somebody who — I have friends who could read like a pretty dry book just filled with items or, practical mechanical things and love that. And I wanna like, give that all the shine it deserves. For me, I’m always framing things in terms of: what is the story here? What is the through-line, the hook that really gets me invested in reading about all this equipment, reading about this setting in the world? And I really appreciate the thought that goes into that and I’m sure, I’m sure other fans of the system do too. So, just awesome awesomely done.
I am curious, how did you come up with the name Valashinaz and Purepurin?
Michael: So, for Valazhinaz, I, I think I literally was just like “dragon name!” Lots of, you know, Vs and Zs and as something kind of sibilant. I had gone and I had looked at some dragon names that I had just kind of thrown out for, a little blog I wrote. When we did Secrets of Magic, I did the iconic encounter for, The Magus, Whispers in the Storm, and, and he kills a, a dragon during that.
And so I was just kinda like, well, what dragon names did I use there? What dragon names do we already kind of have in the setting? There was a little bit of a thought that maybe I would try to do something that sounded like it came from Tian Xia with Valashinaz. But what I kind of ultimately landed on was, you know, dragons are dragons and it doesn’t necessarily make sense for a human language to influence their naming because especially a dragon as old as Valzashina, who has probably seen several civilizations rise and fall, during her lifespan.
But I did go a little bit more — with Purepurin’s name kind of came from a, a combination of a few phrases and names and characters who I was fond of in anime who had similar personality traits. Purepurin was supposed to be a little bit more grounded in Tian Xia specifically, in that Purepurin is kind of from Tian Xia, whereas Valashinaz has been around longer than several of probably quite a few of the nations in Tian Xia, and certainly longer than any of the current ruling bodies in that nation. There’s some little name drops in a couple of the stories that I think only show up once or twice in very recent lore and that you’ll get a ton of, uh, when you, when you see the Tian Xia world guide and character guide.
Eleanor did such an amazing job spearheading those. But you’ll see that I was able to kind of pick her brain and look at the threads she was laying down and weave those into this book to try and bring all of the narratives together. But yeah, so Valashinaz was — I needed to come up with a name for a dragon that, that was a little scary and sounded like a dragon name.
And Purepurin was, a bit of an effort to, to ground the story. And I just wanted it to be cute and, and kind of fun to say [laughs]. You know?
Esther: It absolutely is. Yeah. I love that. Whenever I have to come up with like, a draconic name or even like, I don’t know, Elven names, I’ll just take a pen and a piece of paper and write down like letters until, and arrange them until I’m like, “This sounds right. Yeah. This, this is the vibe I want.”
I have some stuff to ask you about particular sections of the book, but while we’re on Valashinaz, I’m really curious as a designer how you get into the headspace of a being that old who has witnessed that much. Like, what do you do to take yourself into the perspective of this ancient dragon? I’m so curious.
Michael: Well, so there were a lot of pieces, that I pulled from — you know, I, uh, I lost my grandfather, relatively recently. And, you know, I was spending a lot of time with my grandmother. He died of Covid after an extended hospital stay. And being around them during that time… I, I, I don’t know that I had fully processed it at the time, but there was a moment where it was clear that my grandfather realized he was not leaving the hospital and he started speaking and acting in, in, in those ways, kind of preparing for the end. And my grandmother on the other side was kind of preparing for what a world was going to be like where she was going to live for what was probably going to feel like a very long time without her best friend and her partner and, and the person who had, you know, in her words, been her life for so many years.
And, uh, as I’m writing Valashinaz, I, I honestly, I just kind of let that sadness and that weight of age and inevitability just kind of like sink into me. I definitely, there were times writing where, where I got, you know, some tears in my eyes and I, and I started thinking of tragedies that had happene. A very, very good family friend of ours, who had joined the army, gone to war, lived through many horrible things, died in this very unexpected hiking accident a few years back.
It hit my grandparents very, very heavily in particular, because he was someone who was very important to them and who had kind of opened this, this door for many of their own children and grandchildren. And in kind of paving a path to how we started our own lives, y’know, out of Juneau, Alaska and, and into the broader world.
And, and so that started bringing pieces of who Valashinaz was into my, into my head. Valashinaz was someone who had lost a partnership that was longer than many people ever had or ever would live. Valashinaz was someone who had seen her favored child killed by adventurers, and just kind of needed to continue going beyond that.
She was someone who had lived long enough to see her own future and enough of the futures of other beings to accept the end, but not be defeated by it. And as I, as I kind of learned those things about her, that more and more informed how she spoke and how she thought of things and, you know, that was a lot of the way she talks about, you know, humans and humanoids is, is kind of the way that we talk about animals, you know. The, you know, the raccoons that you see in the neighborhood and that moment in time where you realize like, “Oh, that big raccoon that used to walk in front of my house at night, I haven’t seen him in a couple years. He must be gone now. And I never noticed his passing.”
There was just a day when I realized there were different raccoons, right?
Michael: And… and so all of that just kind of, I think, coalesced until I felt like I knew Valashinaz very well. I felt like she and I had had conversations about all of these things. I felt like I was one of those people who both knew her as a person, but also as a legend.
I was just very kind of swept up in that. And a lot of her voice, I felt like she was just dictating to me and I was just putting it down on, on paper, you know? Purepurin — honestly, there’s just a lot of me in, in Purepurin, you know? I, I do feel like I’ve worked really hard and I, I do have a certain mastery of my craft, but I also feel like any creative person should never get too arrogant, and should always know that there is farther left to go. And, you know, Purepurin is actually very competent.
You know, we did blogs and stories and, and things where we show that she is much more than your average kobold. But at the same time, she has accidents. She makes mistakes. She feels very responsible for the other kobolds, and she wants to make sure that they have an incredible future, but she has kind of a limited understanding of, of how to get there.
There is, uh, a piece where she talks about how maybe one day, the kobolds aren’t gonna be able to continue living under Valashinaz’s care. Either Valashinaz will be gone or there will just be too many kobolds for the Vaults to hold. And she talks about what that future is going to be like when — and maybe she goes and she finds this new world for them.
And to a certain extent, I, I feel that in my career. You know, I am part of kind of this third wave of employees at, at Paizo. And the people who’ve been here since the beginning, like Eric Mona, you know, they’re still here. Some of them have left and gone on to other things. You know, Lisa is largely retired from the day-to-day operations.
And so I kind of feel like to a certain extent, I understand Purepurin being in this position of both being part of something that has been around since before she was there and will be there after she was gone, but also being excited about the future that she’s going to help build.
Esther: Hmm. Thank you so much for sharing all of that.
I am thinking now about how the really powerful ways that grief and our experiences as human beings impact our experiences as designers and worldbuilders, and how important that is.
And I think sometimes, the membrane can seem awfully like, thin there. And I wonder as a designer, like at what point do I let things pass through that membrane and at what point do I create more of a stoppage? And I think some of the work for me has been learning to open up a little bit more and letting all that experience pass through and impact the work because that just makes it so real and so relatable. And I think that is really, really important when building a world that we wanna invite people into.
Michael: Yeah. Absolutely. You know, I think — I think there is sometimes a, you know, a tricky line to walk where I want characters to reflect things that I know and things that I have experienced, but I don’t want them to be me. And I don’t know if that’s a little bit imposter syndrome and a little bit, a portion of my style, and then you know, whatever else. But I really feel like when I’ve really got that best kind of character, when I don’t feel so much like I’m writing a story as I’m just relaying a story that, I already know is out there…
It’s when I can attach empathy and personal lived experiences to this other entity, and they become, you know, kind of a friend in a way.
Esther: That feeling of relaying a story that’s already out there is just one of the coolest and best feelings, experiences, to have as a creator — I think. So, that’s just so cool.
So there were a couple other things I really wanted to get to, and one of them was to ask you about the Secrets of Crafting section, which was a standout section for me. I just adored everything you wrote there, the way it was laid out and thought about, and I wanted to ask: what was the impetus behind that?
Michael: We knew going into this book that if we were going to do a big book of items, that it was going to naturally kind of raise questions for people about Crafting. And the original Crafting system that we released in the Core Rulebook for Pathfinder Second Edition, uh, is very balanced.
It doesn’t have any of the mechanical break points that Crafting in, in PF1 tended to have — I I say as someone who, you know, was often the person in the party who loved playing a Crafter and, and, and broke more than one campaign over my knee as a result. But it was kind of dry and there wasn’t a lot of punch to it.
And so there were a variety of things we kind of wanted to do to try and make Crafting more fun for people. And that included making it interactive; things like the Story-Based Crafting, very much influenced by things going all the way back to some of my earliest tabletop RPG and similar related experiences.
You know, I remember thinking about the old Baldur’s Gate games and finding like the pieces of the artifact and then finally getting to take them to, you know, whatever forge place you could put them all together. And how that was always kind of a fun way of making crafting an exciting part of a story and, and more than just a dice role.
You know, mega-elixir syndrome is a thing. People talk about the, like, “I have these consumables, but I, I always feel like maybe this isn’t actually the right moment for it.” And then next thing I know, I’ve held onto the consumables so long that it’s not really worth using anymore. And so that was a thing, you know, that Mark Seifer and I talked about, and that went into the Nature Crafting and the idea of gardens that you can grow and, and whole items from that have a time limit. So you know, “you’re gonna use this, when am I gonna use this? I’m gonna use this today because tomorrow it won’t be here.”
And it was just a lot of talking about, what are the things we do in our own games that, our, our players have enjoyed that we can codify and bring into the game here? What are complaints people have had that we hope we can address? And then taking all of those various things, coming up with answers, and trying to fit them within just the general narrative of the book that we’ve created. So…
Esther: I especially loved the gardening. I think that’s a genius solution to the sort of reluctance people feel to use items like, “Well, what if I need it later and I, I shouldn’t use it in this encounter or this situation?” And then you wind up never using it.
I love the idea that it’s perishable, it has a time limit, and so the purpose is that it’s grown to be used. That’s just amazing. Genius bit of design there.
I think orienting campaigns around Crafting can sometimes be a little bit of a challenge for me as a GM. I’ve wanted to do more of it.
My spouse plays an Inventor and I wanna give them the space to really just create and go to town and have fun with it. And it can be like, how do we weave this into the narrative of the story in a way that feels organic, in a way that feels meaningful? And the examples laid out in Story-Based Crafting, I thought were such a beautiful illustration of how you can do that, and how it can feel really natural and integrate not just one character, but everybody in the party into that story, into that process.
Michael: Yeah. I mean, and that was, that was very much the goal, was taking this whole thing and giving examples of how to weave it together and talk about how, well, maybe everybody is gonna have their own story of the cool thing that they’re Crafting and how can you kind of like, lay the pieces down?
I remember when we were working on Story-Based Crafting, I did have this moment where I was like, “Gosh, I wonder if this is too many examples? I wonder if people are gonna feel a little cheated, that these are examples of how to use it and not rules?” And I have not actually heard anybody say that since. And so hopefully it ended up being what do I hoped it would be, which was just a great inspiration. And then I tried to write some of those in such a way where a GM could very easily just be like “This, specifically this with the proper nouns swapped out, is tonight’s adventure,” you know?
Esther: Yeah, and I love that. So, I am disabled and part of that is dealing with intense brain fog sometimes. And there’s times when I’m like, I really wanna run something, but I do not have the ability to turn on the creative juices right now and write something out and do all the prep. And having those ready-made scenarios is so great. It gives me permission to use them, which I just adore. And I think it’s so important for the folks who sometimes, for whatever reason, struggle with “how do I set up my own thing? How do I come up with all of the elements of this?” It presents something you can just use and that — that’s another on-ramp to the game, right? Another part of access, which is just a beautiful thing.
Michael: Yeah, I… you know, the point of a game is to be played, right? So… [laughs] And that, and that’s something I always, think about and that the whole team we talk about, is it should be fun. It should tell you how to use it.
When I talk to freelancers about stuff, one of my kind of constant pieces of advice is, “don’t just think about what boxes in the grid need to be checked. Don’t just think about, well, here’s a cool mechanical construction. What do I paint on top of it? Like, really ask yourself what the story you’re trying to tell is.” You know, my favorite feats are feats that have stories behind them that kinda leads you in. I use the word “cinematic” a lot when I’m talking about my favorite type of design.
In Lost Omens Pathfinder Society Guide, there are some feats that I wrote in there that were based on a character and a story that Leo Glass and I originally started working on, in, in Organized Play. This character Malika, who is a master of this fire-based martial arts, and when we wrote her, we wanted it to be a really cool combat thing where she, you know, is, kind of the villain, but a sympathetic villain of the adventure that she’s brought into. And we’re like, “She lights herself on fire. She does this, cool running talon grab, and then she flips it into an over-the- top, you know, WWE style exploding tackle!”
And that’s kind of like a very, you know, kind of specific and visceral version, but I think that that expands to everything. There was this moment where I was developing the Assistive Items section in Treasure Vault and, there were Assistive Items for like, Animal Companions.
Like, if your Animal Companion was injured and you know, suffered limb loss or maybe had been born with limb difference, but you still wanted that, that to be, you know, part of it. And I knew some of what the freelancer was putting into there and I was like, this is just so — such an incredible thing.
None of these are going to — you know, they’re not highly gameable. They’re not things that you’re going to necessarily use for a mechanical advantage in the game, but they’re a thing that lets you tell a story and someone is going to see themselves, or see a beloved pet, or remember a childhood pet or a friend’s — you know, just these things.
And I feel like, for me, a well-executed game is one where the mechanics do what you want them to do in a way that the player can intuit, and then they also tell a story that can be personal to every person who interacts with them. And so that’s just always what I try to strive for in the books that I’m lead on and, and the content that I write myself.
Esther: It really shows. I am so glad you brought in the Assistive Items because I had like, a little note, “I hope we get to this in the conversation.” That section means so much as a disabled person. I wasn’t expecting to see the assistive devices for Animal Companions, and when I did, I just had this moment of, “that’s genius!”
I don’t know that I would’ve thought of that, and I’m so happy it’s here now. It’s opened up this world of possibility. I remember the assistive devices for nonverbal characters — that again, I was like, “I wasn’t expecting to find this here and finding it here is so important.” There’s times when just, cognitively and the nature of my disability, means I have a really hard time speaking.
And to feel like I get to put that in a game — I get to put that in a game where the mechanics of the game I love, but then I get to see myself and, and feel good about that aspect of myself? That helps us make meaning in a game on a level that is just so good for me, and I think for a lot of people.
Michael: Yeah, I knew I wanted that to speak to a wider array of disabilities in this book with the Assistive Items section. And Steve Hammond was one of the authors who worked on that. And he and his wife have both worked as caretakers, know ASL, taught their daughters ASL, and have worked with a variety of people.
And, you know, I, I remember telling him at one point, I was like: “You’re gonna know better than I am what kind of items are going to tell those stories and make people feel seen. So, like, do it!” And we have an editing team who is also just really very highly skilled. Avi in particular is, just has this great eye and this great knowledge for how to present sensitivity issues and frame them.
And I just really — I honestly went into that section feeling a little fighty. Uh, I think when I was working on the outline, someone — I saw like, some Twitter post or something where someone was like, “why would you have a wheelchair in a, you know, fantasy game? Why wouldn’t you use regeneration, blah, blah.”
And I was like, “Man, screw you! You know what, no. I’m gonna, I’m gonna put chapter in here. I’m gonna write a punchy side note in the introduction, letting you know that this game is for everybody. And if you don’t like the fact that we’ve got assistive items in here, I literally don’t care!” And then after I’d gotten all fighty, put it in the outline and got it approved, I was like, “all right, now I need people who know this world better than I do to really help me like, back up the punch I’ve just…” [laughs]
Esther: Thank you so much for throwing that punch. It really makes a difference. I, I know so many people who are in the tabletop space who are disabled, who see those kind of posts about “why would you have an assistive device? Why would you play a disabled character?” and leave, honestly. And it means the world to people to see “I am represented, and not only am I represented, I’m like wholeheartedly represented in this way that is just like unapologetic, that is so welcoming.”
So thank you. It makes a huge difference.
Michael: You know, my, my first career was in the military and, you know, my time in the military, uh, I suffered some, some permanent injuries to my leg and my hearing and, and things like that. The thing that sticks with me from my time recovering and adapting to those things was, was people who were faced with much greater challenges than I, who I felt like I was walking in their shadows, you know?
I remember a, a fellow soldier who, you know, had a double leg amputation when I had a, an operation to, to repair my knee. And I was still inside doing PT on the bars, and I remember watching him run past on the track and just being like, good god!
And not to, you know, not to glorify disabilities or, or, or anything like that. Everybody has their own life and their own challenges. But I, I think I have been blessed to live in a world where I have met so many people who have had such a wide array of challenges, and have met the world with just incredible grace and passion and, and sometimes ferocity and, and things that I, that I’ve always just kind of been awed and, and, and humbled by.
I want those people in my party when we venture into danger, when we face the unknown and that which is before us. I, I want anyone who has faced a great challenge and overcome it to, you know, or, or found a way to continue living in spite of it or, or whatever their particular story is.
I want all of those stories here in our world, and I want them to know that you’re always welcome at this table. And in my opinion, any, any table that can play this game and doesn’t make everyone feel welcome has not paid very much attention to the game we’re making. My opinion, you know?
Esther: Heartily agreed and beautifully said. Just yeah, absolutely.
I am conscious of our time and there’s one more question that I had for you, which is kind of general, but I really wanted to touch on it. I think a lot of folks who read this book, and myself included, really loved the inclusion of food and the big section of food, which was just — oh my god, it was so fun.
Every one of those things I was like, I wanna plant this in front of my characters so they can eat it. How did you go about approaching, like the idea of, of putting a lot of food items in the game? What was that process like?
Michael: So part of that is, I love the idea of food being a major part of an adventurer’s identity.
There’s this anime that I was really into for a while called Toriko. He’s like, an exotic food hunter who travels to the far reaches of the world looking for the rarest ingredients and things that only exist in these places that mankind has never touched. There was a book that I worked on called Spheres of Might for Pathfinder First Edition. That was a third party book. And I wrote an archetype for that called the Battle Chef, where I took a chassis that was supposed to be for this blacksmith class, but then I replaced all of the Crafting stuff with like, you whip together sandwiches and the ingredients you put on your sandwich will kind of inform what kind of benefits the party gets. And so I think, you know, food is a thing that everybody understands, everybody gets, because we all have to eat.
And so expanding upon it, just felt very natural to me. Kendra Lee Speedling is the one who wrote most of the food items in there. I dumped a bunch of ideas in the outline. I think there were quite a few that I threw in there myself and then other ideas from people in the company.
And we had already kind of cracked that door open a little bit in Lost Omens — I think it might have been Grand Bazaar — uh, shops there had had introduced the idea of alchemical foods, and I was like, “let’s really lean into it. Let’s have some fun, magical foods. Let’s expand the kinds of alchemical foods that are there.”
The Alchemist is the “whip the thing up on the spot” class already, and that became this fun outpouring of ideas. I think Logan was the one who I was talking about “what is a cool kind of thing we could put in here that an Alchemist in particular would really like mechanically kind of more than anything else?”
And Logan threw out the word cocktails, right? And I was like, “oh no, that’s so good. Because, we can have it be, you know, a little mix and match of your bonuses. And for a standard character, they’d have to assemble their cocktail before they go out on an adventure. So they kind of have to already know, ‘yeah guys, I’m making bellinis today.'”
You know? [Mike and Esther laugh]
But, um, the Alchemist can whip out the mixer right there on the spot in the battlefield and custom, you know, make whatever cocktail the moment calls for. And so it was a really cool way to put an item into the game that was fun for everybody, but extra fun for the Alchemist and spoke to that class’s strengths and design in a way that allowed this item to elevate them in particular.
So, there’s just a lot of it, you know? Food is just fun. Honestly, there are food items that didn’t even make it in, because we had more ideas than managed to squeeze into the pages of this book. There’s this really cool piece of art I am still hoping to use someday that is like an apron with just stuff pouring out of the apron pockets all around, ’cause there was supposed to be this like, apron of treats where you could pull out familiar snacks and, and things. I’m sure somebody right now is gonna be really mad that that didn’t make it into the book even though it had art. But sometimes that’s just the way it goes, and I will find the time and the place to squeeze it in! You know, it’ll… it’ll happen.
Esther: It’ll happen. I look– I look very forward to that. Amazing. I think you’re so right. Food has, a universal appeal and it’s so fun and you can do so much with it. And I love the way you tailored the cocktails to the Alchemist class, but also just like so many of those items could be useful inreally specific situations and also really broadly.
And it was just a lot of fun as a GM and a player to read through and be like, I wanna run across that one day. That’ll be fun.
Michael: Sometimes I think I am the number one fan of my coworkers and freelancers, because the excitement that I get when I’m developing a book like this and I’m like, I literally just wrote the word “cookies” and Kendra gave me six ideas that are all amazing takes on cookies, you know, or things like that.
It’s just really fun and the food in particular is just one of those things where sometimes it doesn’t even — sometimes it’s not even in the food section. There is a fulu that I believe Yvonne wrote where it’s, it’s actually based on a tradition where she lives that is like a maker’s mark on food. And the fulu is based on that real-life — I might have even just made sure to put the sidebar in that section because she wrote it — she asked me, she was like, “Can I tell people where these ideas came from?” And I was like, “Hell yeah. I’ll find a way to make it work.”
You know? I think that’s so cool.
Esther: That is so cool. Yeah. Now I’m gonna go looking for that.
Michael: There’s only a couple sidebars in the book that are not in Valashinaz or Purepurin’s voice, and they are very specifically for things like that. Someone had a very incredible story to tell about, like, why is this particular thing in the book? And I wanted to make sure that, that the fans got to know that too, you know?
Esther: I love that so much giving space to that story. Like, the fact that it all comes back to stories and how we share them and whose stories are being centered and highlighted. That’s beautiful. I wanted to ask you if there’s anything we haven’t gotten to that you wanted to shout out to, reflect upon about this book?
Michael: You know, I, for whatever reason, I never seem to get easy books. Guns and Gears, I had just come over to the Design Team from Organized Play and I kind of started two months in the hole on getting that book done. And then Treasure Vault was supposed to be being made at about the exact time that Paizo entered the initial steps that would turn into our unionization with the support of our freelancers going on strike to kind of make their voices heard in support of the people who make this game and, ask our leadership to maybe pay a little bit more attention to us and consider our needs a bit more in the way that the company operated. And so, while that was an incredible endeavor and an incredible outpouring of support, it also meant that once again, by the time Treasure Vault was in process, the window to plan and work on it had shrunk significantly.
But those same freelancers who supported us in unionizing and moving the company forward, and into the future there, so many of them showed up to make sure we got Treasure Vault over the line with their contributions. Yvonne, Kim Frandsen, Dave Nelson, Jessica Redekop, I, I literally, I can’t name everybody without just reading through the list.
The credits are there. Please, you know, if you’ve got a copy of Treasure Vault, pick it up. Read those names. This book faced challenges and every single one of those challenges was overcome by everybody whose name is listed in that list, really making sure this was the best book it could possibly be.
And, you know, I’m, I’m just glad we got to make it. I’m glad that they did such great work, that I got the opportunity to tell Valashinaz and Purepurin’s stories and all these little bits and pieces that became, you know, this through line. Chris Sims, who used to work for us on Starfinder, and then he came in and worked as a contract developer to help just churn pages on this and, and get it done.
An incredible team of people made this book. And, and while, you know, I, I led it, it, it was really my privilege to lead it, and I’m glad you liked it. Listening to you and Navaar talking about it was very humbling and gratifying. I loved that the two of you seem to love these two characters, who I had, poured so much into.
I am just so grateful that those characters have helped introduce all of this incredible content to, the audience who has gotten to enjoy it. So…
Esther: Mmm. As are we! Definitely read through the credits, y’all. It’s something I actually do every book because I just wanna see the list of people who made the thing, and to consider like, all the labor, all the long hours, all the creativity that went into this product that now we get to enjoy. So please definitely check out everybody who’s credited on this book.
Mike, my last question for you is: do you have a favorite item in the book, and if so, what might it be?
Michael: So yes, I do! And. I wrote it because I thought it was really fun. And it is the wrecker combination weapon that is the, dwarven Dorn-Dergar, which is basically just a giant brick on a chain that is built into the, the gear arm thing. So you can throw it like a sling and then retract it or use it as a ranged weapon.
I allow myself one indulgence per book where something goes into the book that is there for the sole and singular reason that I wanted it there. [laughs] And that weapon is there because I had this really fun idea for a ridiculous dwarven Ranger who would use this massive, overly complicated, but also very, very simple in its fundamentals weapon.
Esther: I love it. Honestly, we should all, in our creative works, have at least one thing that’s there just because we love that thing so much. Just indulgent. That’s amazing. Now we’re all gonna go check it out.
Michael: Alright. [laughs]
Esther: It’s been so, so good to have you on the show. Thank you so much for being here. We always like to ask our guests, you know, where can folks find you on the internet? Where can we find your work with Paizo, and also just your work other places, elsewhere?
Michael: I am on Twitter at MichaelJSayre1. Mostly I just do Pathfinder-related design ramblings. They’re occasional homages to things I find interesting. The Pathfinder2E Subreddit is a place that I haven’t gotten to spend a lot of time, but I try to go in there because that community has been so incredible since the launch of this game.
I used to honestly be one of those people who was like, why would anybody go to Reddit? It’s a cesspool and [Esther and Mike laugh]– and then that subreddit kind of completely turned me around because it was such an amazing community full of, creative people. My third party works, if you go to DriveThruRPG and search my name, you’ll find I’ve got a ton of third party stuff that I’ve written for great companies who are part of my story and who have helped me get to where uh, I am.
You know, I mentioned I used to do a lot of writing for Drop Dead Studios, worked on things like Spheres of Might and some of their Spheres of Power books. Christen Sowards at Lost Spheres Publishing, I’ve done a lot of work with him. He’s just an incredible person and he creates amazing worlds and, and really fun products.
So if you search my name on DriveThruRPG, you will find those names attached with me very often. Same with Owen K.C. Stephens, who has been, an incredible friend and mentor to me for many, many, many, many years. I don’t feel like I can really talk about me without talking about all of the people who have been parts of the story that brought me to this point, so… [laughs]
Esther: I– I deeply love that. That’s really a beautiful thing. I love that, you know, in finding your stuff, our listeners can find a bunch of cool other people and a bunch of cool other stuff. That’s a beautiful thing. Awesome.
Esther: Thank you so much for joining us. We’d love to have you come back on the show one of these days to talk about more amazing Pathfinder 2E material.
You can find me on the internet everywhere @dungeonminister. I am also the GM of a Pathfinder2E actual play, Chromythica. We are on social media @chromythica. You can also find us at Chromythica wherever you get your podcasts and on YouTube, and visit us on our website at chromythica dot com.
You can find Know Direction @KnowDirection on Twitter and YouTube and other places like Mastodon. You can also feel welcome to come over and join our Discord, where we talk about all of the network shows and blog posts, as well as Pathfinder and Starfinder and other systems and other things we like.
So if you want to hang out and talk about all that cool stuff and even like, tell us what you might like to hear about on future shows, come over and chat for a while.
Thanks so much for tuning in! Until next time…